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As a former champion sprinter with the University of Regina Cougars, it made perfect sense that Tevaughn Campbell’s jaw-dropping speed would translate from the track to the gridiron.
But moving from football to rugby? Despite university teammates urging him to give sevens a try, the six-foot 200-pounder from Toronto had zero interest in crossing over.
“One of the guys on my college football team, he played rugby and said I’d be perfect at it,” says Campbell, currently a CFL free agent after three seasons with the Calgary Stampeders, Saskatchewan Roughriders, and Montreal Alouettes.
“I brushed it off, because I had never heard about sevens, and I was thinking he was talking about fifteens, and that’s not really my style. But he kept bugging me about it, year after year, until I finally checked out some Sevens Series highlights on YouTube, and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.”
While Campbell was getting acquainted with the sport through highlight packs, those in the sport were familiarizing themselves with Campbell, too.
The speedy defensive back initially caught the attention of the Canadian sevens coaching staff after setting a CFL scouting combine record in 2015 by running the 40-yard dash in 4.355 seconds. The following year, the gold-standard accolades continued to pile up: while competing for the University of Regina during the CFL off-season, Campbell also won the U Sports 60-metre final in 2016.
It’s the sort of pace that couldn’t be ignored.
“I think Damien [McGrath] honed into the speed aspect of my game after the combine,” said Campbell. “The coaches had seen what USA had been doing with crossover athletes like Perry Baker and Carlin Isles, and they wanted their own weapon, too.”
After accepting an invitation from Rugby Canada to attend the Canada Sevens last March, Campbell got his first taste of live rugby.
He was hooked.
The on-field physicality was right up his alley, but what caught him by surprise was the fan culture, which was unlike anything he had experienced before.
“The atmosphere was just electric, with everyone dressed up in costumes and having a good time for eight hours straight. No one was booing other teams, and everyone was cheering for every team, even the teams playing against Canada. There was a level of respect you just don’t see in other sports.”
Campbell didn’t need long to mull things over. After just one practice with the national program - marking the first time he had ever picked up a rugby ball - Campbell travelled with the team on the Asian leg of the Series last April. As the team’s 13th man, Campbell was front-and-centre to take in Canada’s first-ever Cup title, and the experience left quite the impression.
“I’d never even been out of the continent before that tour, ever,” he recalls. “And winning gold, it was definitely surreal. We were in front of a huge crowd, everyone’s cheering, and we got to walk around representing our country with our flag. It’s something I’ll never forget.”
After Canada’s historic performance in Singapore, Campbell’s mind was made up. He pledged to himself he’d return to the rugby scene following the end of the 2017 CFL season, and followed through with his vow by becoming a carded member of Canada’s sevens program in late November.
Since moving to Langford for the CFL off-season, there’s been no ‘easing in’ period for Campbell. It’s been a trial by fire as he gets acclimatized to his new winter sport; the speed merchant has already featured in three tournaments with the Maple Leafs - Canada’s developmental sevens side - with stops in Dubai, Uruguay, and Chile over the past six weeks.
Playing alongside Canada’s crop of up-and-coming sevens talent, the 24-year-old has found himself as the Maple Leafs’ “old-timer” in a program primarily composed of teenagers.
“It’s definitely different being the grandfather of the team, but I still have a lot to learn from the younger guys because they’ve played the game for so long, a lot longer than me,” he laughs. “I have a lot to learn still, and I appreciate their insights. Especially on tour, I’m always asking questions. Can you do this? Why can’t you do that? Everyone has been a lot of help.”
On top of having to learn the rules and nuances of a new sport, Campbell admits that the transition has also been a bit of a cardio shock.
“Fourteen minutes seems like a little amount of time, but when you’re on that field running around for 14 minutes non-stop, continuously making tackles, getting up facing someone… it’s a lot more difficult than it sounds.”
While it may not be a common occurrence, Campbell is far from the first player to cross over from the gridiron to the pitch.
American star Perry Baker played college football and trained with the Philadelphia Eagles before spending two seasons in the Arena Football League.
The sport has also lured bona fide NFL regulars into its ranks, with New England Patriots safety Nate Ebner featuring for the American sevens team at the Rio Olympics.
Despite more athletes moving between the two sports, including the likes of Jarryd Hayne, Alex Gray, and fellow Canadian Adam Zaruba, Campbell’s move to the rugby pitch has generated polarizing viewpoints from those within the football community.
“I think it has its positives and negatives. Every coach is different, every team is different, and every mind is different. Some people see that I’m learning a lot of new techniques, and that my fitness has skyrocketed. But a lot the negative views are those questioning my focus, asking me if I’m a football player or a rugby player, and not understanding that I can be both. In my mind, the two sports complement one another perfectly.”
With his CFL obligations running from late May (reporting for training camp) to late November (the final game of the year, the Grey Cup), Campbell’s football schedule meshes nicely with the Sevens Series tournament calendar, which traditionally spans from early December to mid-May.
It may be a jam-packed schedule, but Campbell is going to give it his all to balance the two sports.
“I see it as a challenge for sure, but I like to do multiple things at once. I like to use my attributes as I have them now, because everyone gets old, and when I get old I know I’m not going to be able to run around on a football field or a rugby field or win races in track and field, and I’d rather do it all now while I have the opportunity.”
Campbell is hesitant to set lofty rugby aspirations, instead viewing this season an opportunity to gauge his career trajectory within his new sport.
“Everyone wants to be the best, and I surely do, but I take it day-by-day to see what happens.”
That said, with memories of a gold medal around his neck and a maple leaf on his chest in Singapore, Campbell has admitted he has at least one goal in his sights.
“I definitely want to go to the Olympics, and I’m going to do everything I can to get there.”
And to all the doubters - those who don’t believe he can make it as a two-sport athlete - Campbell has this to say:
“Just watch and see.”